To present this classic Athol Fugard play at the renowned Fugard Theatre is any director’s dream. Yet, maybe a local equivalent of producing Shakespeare at the Globe, it is also a task accompanied by myriad pressures. In this regard, Kim Kerfoot must be extolled for executing an emotionally tenacious and riveting production.
Master Harold and the Boys is set in Apartheid South Africa and most people are familiar with the tale of this troubled white teen who deflects familial crises into the fraught realm of inter-racial relationships. Hally, played by schoolboy Alex Middlebrook, opts to spend a rainy afternoon in his mother’s tea-room, unwinding with two of his oldest friends. Sounds like a simple scenario but the comrades in question are also black, several years his senior and his mother’s employees.
Sam (Tshamano Sebe) and Willie (Themba Mchunu) have always been a source of sanctuary and solace to Hally. Living with a crippled and alcoholic father, the servant’s quarters were traditionally his asylum and place of refuge. At 17, he would rather engage in light-hearted banter with them than receive persistent phone calls from his mother stating that she is bringing his volatile father home from hospital.
The set’s pitiless lighting, bleached hues and sterile atmosphere render it more akin to a hospital than a tea-room. Instead of bustling thorough-fare and sloppy customers, there is a pervasive silence and desolation to this stage. Middlebrook’s Hally shakes and sputters whenever he ingests sustenance of any kind and the way in which food, drink and other wares stand in glass bottles, sealed and untouched, almost grants them the aspect of feared medical specimens. As the play progresses and Hally becomes ever more hysterical, this clinical environment begins to grant him the aspect of a delirious patient and forges latent parallels between him and his degenerate father.
Middlebrook is 16 and if his age shows then it is only to more painfully and precisely capture Hally’s adolescent shame and rage. This talented young man’s neurotic and jittering cadences mean that even at the outset of the play, when Hally is ostensibly speaking to his friends in terms of gratitude and love, his eventual emotional collapse is already foreshadowed.
The relationship between Sam and Hally is at the very core of Master Harold and the Boys and in keeping with this, this production pivots upon the chemistry between Middlebrook and Sebe. The latter delivers the outstanding performance of the show, at ease in comedic moments of jollity and sensitively portraying the emasculation of black men under Apartheid, Sebe’s Sam demystifies the pathetic nature of Hally’s racism with his resonant intonations and genuine wisdom.
With the other vivid performances in mind, Mchunu’s crucial supporting role should not be overlooked. Just the kind of character that usually provokes repulsion and disdain, Mchunu inhabits the role of the chauvinistic yet well-intentioned Willie by portraying how and why certain men become abusive without ever exhibiting this brutal behavior in a flattering light.
The sophistication and finesse of this production lie in the way in which it reproduces Fugard in traditional style but also draws out a new and refined degree of psychological intensity from a script that is already a depthless well of emotional complexity. The play triumphs due to the disciplined and ruthless concentration of the actors while the meticulous set-design, gravitas of the venue and lack of an interval all aid in the creation of catatonic energy. This latter point is true both of the comedic scenes and also of the moments in which Hally’s warped racial bigotry defeats him and he spits, fumes and slurs at his mentor and friend.
For Sam, Art is something of great beauty whilst for Hally, true art is not obliged to be appealing, indeed it can be brutal and repulsive so long as it invests inert matter with form, structure and meaningful life. On the superficial level, this Fugard production subscribes to the latter definition of art in its gruesome and relentless interrogation of interpersonal relationships. Yet at the same time, Sebe’s booming laugh and passion for ballroom dancing, both literally and as a metaphor for an aesthetic life, stayed with me in the hours after the performance. Indeed, as he and Mchunu waltz off stage, the resilience of the characters renders the scene beautiful and mesmerising as it glows with the light of tortured but strident souls. This cast impeccably captures the defiant effervescence of Fugard’s black characters and their message is continually inspiring especially considering that the battle against racism is still a relevant one in South Africa today.